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Tributes paid to inspirational professor

  • Date

    Thu 25 Feb 21

It is with great sadness that we share the news that Gabriel Pearson, Emeritus Professor of the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies, has died.

Gabriel came to Essex in 1965 and made a huge contribution to the University inspiring generations of students, influencing many through his writing and taking on numerous leadership roles.

During his decades of devoted service to the university, Gabriel acted as Head of the Department from 1978 to 1981, as Dean of what was then the School of Comparative Studies in the 1980s and as Pro-Vice-Chancellor (PVC) in the early 1990s. Just one of his achievements as PVC was the establishment of the campus nursery, from which many Essex parents and children have benefited.

Gabriel was a brilliant lecturer and public speaker. He taught literature from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, and had a particular passion for drama and theatre, inspiring generations of students.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Anthony Forster said: “We owe so much to Gabriel, who made such a significant impact on his department and the University over many, many years. He was a great teacher and writer who so obviously enjoyed sharing his love for literature and the creative arts, inspiring his students, colleagues and friends.”

Head of the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, Professor Liz Kuti, said: Gabriel had a seemingly unquenchable appetite for literature, story-telling, drama and art. I remember that he was scheduled to come in and lecture on Hamlet, for our Drama first years. I asked my then colleague Barbara Peirson what Gabriel was going to talk about. She said ‘Oh, you don’t quite know. I think he just reads Hamlet again the night before and then he comes in and talks.’ Which he did, thrillingly, with no notes, with absolute eloquence, unpacking the intricacies and mysteries of Hamlet in a perfectly-shaped lecture. You were just in the presence of a great master.

“Close friends speak of his ‘scintillating intelligence’ and his ‘wonderful mind’ but equally of his emotional intelligence, his gifts as a teacher, his ability to connect with people. It is fitting that Gabriel initiated the campus nursery when he was PVC. He had a holistic intelligence and understanding of people, as well as art and literature. We will miss him so much, and are so grateful for everything he brought to our department and the wider university community.”

Gabriel was an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, together with Stuart Hall, Raphael Samuel and Charles Taylor, where he started, and then jointly edited, the first issue of, Universities and Left Review that would later evolve into the renowned New Left Review. He then took a post as Lecturer at the University of Keele before moving to Essex.

Keen to engage with as wide an audience as possible, Gabriel was a reviewer for The Guardian for a while and to his delight, a few sentences from one of his reviews appeared in Pseuds Corner in Private Eye. He also published a seminal essay on the American poet Robert Lowell that helped establish Lowell’s reputation on this side of the Atlantic. Lowell was later to say of Gabriel’s essay that he learned more about himself from that than from anything else he had ever read.

Gabriel died peacefully at home last Friday, with members of his family close beside him: his wife Sue, his son Caspar and his daughter Olivia.

Details of the funeral are being confirmed.

If you would like to add a tribute to this story please email: comms@essex.ac.uk

Tributes to Professor Gabriel Pearson

“Gabriel was already retired when I joined the Centre for Theatre Studies at Essex in 2004 but retirement didn’t stop him lecturing regularly, and keeping up with the latest trends in Performance Theory, or attending the Edinburgh Festival, I think, every year. Gabriel had a seemingly unquenchable appetite for literature, story-telling, drama and art. I remember that he was scheduled to come in and lecture on Hamlet, for our Drama first years. I asked my then colleague Barbara Peirson what Gabriel was going to talk about. She said ‘Oh, you don’t quite know. I think he just reads Hamlet again the night before and then he comes in and talks.’ Which he did, thrillingly, with no notes, with absolute eloquence, unpacking the intricacies and mysteries of Hamlet in a perfectly-shaped lecture. You were just in the presence of a great master. Close friends speak of his ‘scintillating intelligence’ and his ‘wonderful mind’ but equally of his emotional intelligence, his gifts as a teacher, his ability to connect with people. I remember he bought me a copy of a children’s book for my toddlers (then 1 and 3) called ‘Tatty Ratty’, which he recommended for pre-schoolers – it is the story of a lost beloved toy, which the child deals with by colluding in a story of how the toy has survived a great adventure, and returned and made it back to a toy shop, clean as new, and able to be collected by the child and their parents. It is a story of gentle irony, and of healing. It is fitting that Gabriel initiated the campus nursery when he was PVC. He had a holistic intelligence and understanding of people, as well as art and literature. We will miss him so much, and are so grateful for everything he brought to our department of LiFTS and the wider university community.”
Professor Liz Kuti

"Gabriel was something of a hero for me. I came to the University of Essex in 1969 to to read Comparative Literature. Gabriel was my tutor, and I had never met anyone like him before - so perceptive, and so knowledgeable. I remember he told me he had a twin brother called Raphael, and I was astonished to think of these two brothers with such ethereal names. One dictionary definition of ethereal is 'extremely delicate and light in a way that seems not to be of this world’ - that is clearly not a good descriptor of Gabriel, who was a little on the hefty side and more than somewhat untidy! Everything about the University of Essex was extraordinary and challenging to me, coming from a traditional grammar school in the New Forest, and so I took it in my stride that Gabriel would encourage me to shape my own essay titles and then he would respond to what must have been some fairly mundane ideas with great sensitivity and care. I knew it was a privilege to study under him, but perhaps it was only after I left Essex that I realised what a truly exciting learning journey I had been on, which shaped my academic expectations from then onwards. I still feel that my 3 years at the University of Essex (and one further year as the university Careers Information Officer) was the most exciting and challenging time of my whole learning experience, and Gabriel played no small part in that. Thank you Gabriel - rest in peace with the angels."
Penny Frost If anyone reads this who studied Literature in 1969-72 remembers me and would like to get in touch with me, I would love to hear from you.

"Gabriel was my tutor from 1975-76. He was so entertaining and erudite that I remember one student bringing her mother along to a lecture he gave on Jane Austen and Gabriel certainly delivered! In tutorials he definitely raised the bar but was always friendly and kind. He had a great eye for granular detail and I still remember some of things he talked about such as coffee spoons in Eliot's poetry or body language in Jane Austen. A couple of years later I worked on a BBC documentary about the poet Robert Lowell and there was Gabriel in the archive footage doing an interview with Lowell which I think was for the Open University."
Phil O'Shea BA Literature 1974-1977

"So very sorry to lose someone who was such a big part of our lives. A Pearson taught me in the 60s, my daughters in the 70s and 80s; I had a life-changing 4 years in the LIFTS department under Gabriel's tutelage. So when I discovered we lived in the same street I asked if he would like to start a Shakespeare appreciation group with a group of keen friends. He shared his knowledge with us as we discussed and read every play, sonnets, and other contemporary playwrights until Covid interrupted. We shall try to keep the group going without you, Gabriel but it will not be the same."
Jeanette West

"Just wanted to say how sad I am to hear of the passing of Gabriel Pearson. I was fortunate enough to be taught by him and benefited not only from his incredible knowledge and passion for literature but also his unwavering warmth and enthusiasm. A true loss. Thoughts with his family and colleagues. Best wishes."
Mark Stocker, BA (Hons) English & European Literature 1994-1997

"I would just like to add my own small tribute to Gabriel Pearson, having been a student in the School of Comparative Studies from 1965 to 1969. Essex was then a small university, punching well above its weight, with an outstanding Literature department. The tutors I experienced during that time have influenced me throughout my life. Gabriel Pearson was one of these, along with Ed Dorn, Herbie Butterfield, Elaine Feinstein, Tm Clark and of course postgraduate like John Barrell and John Bull as well as poets and friends like Tom Raworth and Tom Clarke. Many have sadly passed on before Gabriel. But I like to take this opportunity to thank them all for a wonderful four years in the early stages of my life, for lasting memories, and for enabling me to develop critical and appreciative abilities which have sustained me over the past fifty years."
Graham (Grey) Morris

"So sad to hear of the death of Gabriel Pearson who was my tutor for Renaissance Literature in 1975 He was quite simply the best teacher of literature and the most exciting lecturer that I ever had."
Gina Irving

"I was one of the first students at the University of Essex and in a staff list not lacking in stars Gabriel Pearson shone without effort or affectation. You recognised at once that he was a person who genuinely loved literature. He was generous in his teaching and always interesting. He was an unforgettable teacher."
Francesca Greenoak, BA Comparative Literature, 1968